by Kevin Kelley
Gov. Jerry Brown was wise to push the pause button earlier this week on the California Independent System Operatorâ€™s gambit to regionalize the stateâ€™s electricity grid, a risky proposition built on the shaky premise that the West is just waiting to be led into the sustainable future, so long as it isnâ€™t California doing the leading.
Of the many lingering questions that have attached to the CAISO regionalization issue, and all of them will still be lingering when the proposal is relaunched in the fall, perhaps the hardest one to answer will be this:
How can California lead if it is no longer in control?
Critics may dismiss California as quirky, even eccentric, but there is no denying that it has been an incubator of big ideas. Not all of its glittery notions have turned out to be golden, but good ideas that rise to the level of good public policy â€“ think of environmental justice, renewable portfolio standards and combatting the effects of climate change â€“ have become the currency by which the state values its influence on the rest of the nation and, indeed, the world.
The latest big idea to have sprung up from Californiaâ€™s progressive state of mind is grid regionalization, a concept that even its staunchest backers acknowledge is more of a work-in-progress than an actual plan, but that hasnâ€™t stopped them from fanning out across the West to extol its many virtues and build the case for a more expansive model to fill the vacuum that, until now, no one knew existed.
And that may be because it doesnâ€™t.
The last time California ceded the levers of electric power to interests outside the state, it was under the banner of energy deregulation and the result was rolling blackouts, roiled financial markets and broad political recriminations all around.
But donâ€™t tell that to the empire-minded CAISO, which oversees roughly 80 percent of Californiaâ€™s transmission system and wants to expand its footprint, although not necessarily its socially responsible agenda, into five adjoining Western states. In support of its regionalization bid, CAISO released a nearly-700-page study that promises lower monthly bills, more energy derived from renewable resources and a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, all by 2030.
There is something bright and shiny for everyone here, and if you donâ€™t believe it right off the bat, all you have to do is read the ponderous report attesting to it and you will. If, however, you remain unconvinced by all the sweeping assumptions and want to see the underlying studies on which they are based, be prepared to sign a non-disclosure agreement, because CAISO believes in applying the publicâ€™s right to know on a need-to-know basis.
Better living may be possible through a regional grid, but openness and transparency arenâ€™t.
At the same time that it has been trumpeting this cornucopia of ratepayer benefits within California, the grid operator has emphasized in public meetings and workshops, especially those held outside the state, that the new and improved CAISO must be far less â€œCalifornia-centric.â€ Thatâ€™s because other states that donâ€™t share Californiaâ€™s enlightened climate and renewable energy goals want to be reassured that signing up for this greater grid doesnâ€™t come with any â€œgreenâ€ strings attached to it.
It also explains why CAISO has become the ubiquitous â€œISO,â€ and why it is glossing over its partnership with PacifiCorp, the Berkshire Hathaway-owned company with transmission and generation assets in each of the states that would comprise the new entity.
All of which might lead a â€œCalifornia-centricâ€ observer to ask how a regional grid is supposed to advance the public interest if the nonprofit grid operator answers to the region (and a for-profit corporation with 62 percent of its portfolio in coal-fired power plants) and not the people of this state?
Remember that the last time California ceded the levers of electric power to interests outside the state, it was under the banner of energy deregulation and the net result was rolling blackouts, roiled financial markets and broad political recriminations all around. You would think that if ratepayers, let alone their elected officials, learned anything from that failed experiment it is that we should be democratizing the grid, not privatizing it.
This is an idea whose time has come and gone, and the reason it seems like dÃ©jÃ vu all over again is that we really have been here before. The whole point of regionalizing the electric grid, after all, should be to make the West more like California, even more â€œCalifornia-centric.â€
And if it isnâ€™t, why not?
Kelley is general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District, the nationâ€™s largest irrigation district and the stateâ€™s third largest public power provider. IID, whose energy balancing authority area takes in all of Imperial County and part of Riverside County, has brought an unfair competition lawsuit against CAISO that is being litigated in U.S. District Court in San Diego.